CAN'T WE ALL GET ALONG?
The way Denver city councilman Ted Hackworth sees it, there were lots of good, sound ways the parks and recreation department could have found to spend $73,500.
For instance, the financially strapped city department might have used the money to buy new equipment like basketballs and volleyball nets. Or it could have held the city's popular recreation centers open later in the evenings for the sake of people who work long hours. Or it could have helped keep the city's outdoor swimming pools filled until Denver's kids went back to school, rather than shutting them down in mid-August. "It's really stupid to have an outdoor pool," Hackworth says, "and use it only ten weeks a year."
With this particular $73,500, however, parks and rec did none of those things. Instead, earlier this year, it hired Maggie Sperling, a $75-an-hour consultant, to spend several months trying to divine the desires and recreation needs of the Denver citizenry. Her job: to organize and "facilitate" a series of meetings with residents at various sites across the city.
Sperling hired two other facilitators, Michael Marez and Joe Gonzales, to help out; they both charged $50 an hour for their services. She retained yet another consultant to survey the feelings and opinions of Denver public-school students. Then, when it was all over, she tabulated the results, which the city has now distilled into a report that sets down the department's "General Philosophy and Guiding Principles." A draft of the report, prepared last month, concluded among other things that "more people of all ages and abilities want access to organized athletics," that parents want instructors "to teach conflict resolution and build self-esteem" in their children and that "youths want a safe, convenient place to socialize with peers."
Administration officials defend the project, saying the information Sperling gathered will prove invaluable in organizing Denver's recreation programs well into the future. But Hackworth thinks it was a waste. Sperling's work, he says, required no special expertise and could easily have been accomplished by city staff. Besides, he points out, many of Sperling's meetings were marred by poor attendance. "Why did we hire her?" Hackworth says. "She was strictly writing down what the neighborhoods said to her. We could have gotten anyone to have done that--for a lot less money."
Like it or not, however, such facilitation contracts have become part of the way public agencies do business these days. Sometimes facilitators go by other names, calling themselves "mediators" or "community-relations consultants." But they can be found working alongside bureaucrats at every level of government. Though their primary function is to run meetings, they have transformed their profession into a quasi-science, complete with its own vocabulary of special terms. Facilitators talk of "capacity building," "partnering," "group memory" and "process ownership." They "plan to plan," conduct "stakeholder analyses" and perform "consensus checks." And they frequently do it at taxpayer expense--sometimes reaping as much as $1,000 for a single day's labor.
Sperling justifies her line of work, saying that facilitation is a skill that many in government lack. "You need people to run meetings who are really good at listening and really have an understanding of what people say," Sperling argues. "There are a lot of inarticulate bureaucrats around."
But Hackworth and others--including some city officials--are dubious about how much value facilitators deliver for the money--and question the sharp increase in their use over the last several years.
"Every time I turn around, someone's saying we need a facilitator," says Denver planning director Jennifer Moulton, who has hired her share of them during her tenure at city hall. "That seems to be everybody's answer these days to a difficult situation."
"For a while, everybody had to have an interior designer," points out Rae McDowell, who encounters facilitators from time to time as an activist in Denver's Cole neighborhood. "Facilitators have gotten to be the same way. I have to admit that sometimes they're the only answer, but not always. I think they're overused." Agrees Stan McIntyre, president of the United South East Denver neighborhood group: "We can't make a move in this city without getting a mediator from outside."
Facilitators claim the rapid growth of their profession is part of a national trend toward more open government. Back in the old days, they say, politicians tended to conduct their business in an autocratic fashion, with little input from members of the public. But citizens and neighborhood groups won't accept that anymore. "There was a time when it was okay for a group of elected officials to go into a back room and make a decision," says Michael Hughes of CDR Associates, a prominent facilitation company in Boulder. "Those days are over. The public is demanding to have a role in the process."
Demand for facilitators is also increasing because of deep skepticism about government in general, facilitators say. The public has become so cynical about its political leaders at every level that it no longer trusts them to run meetings or do "community outreach" fairly.
"People don't have the confidence in government the way they used to," says Tyler Norris of the National Civic League (NCL), a Denver-based nonprofit that does facilitation as part of a broader mission to promote effective government. "If an elected leader or a city staff person gets up and runs a meeting, it's perceived as a `government meeting,' not as a meeting of the community."
Facilitators have stepped into the void. The NCL, for instance, is currently being paid more than $54,000 to help the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment design a new HIV-prevention program. It doesn't matter that NCL staff members have no special knowledge about HIV or AIDS. The group has been brought in only to design the process by which the program will be put together.
Working with state health officials, the NCL recommended the creation of a 100-person task force of interested parties--"stakeholders" in facilitator lingo--to hash out the program's details. The group is a potentially volatile mix of urban blacks, rural whites, Hispanics, public-health workers, militant gays and members of the Christian right. It has been getting together regularly since a kickoff meeting in July and will continue to meet every month between now and the end of the year, trying to design a program that will qualify Colorado to receive federal AIDS-prevention funds.
The NCL's job, according to state documents, is to help the task force "set realistic goals that incorporate the common visions of all participants." NCL staff members will use "facilitation philosophy and strategies" to create a meeting environment that "recognizes, respects and values differences among group members." The league's contract requires frequent "consensus checks" to make sure members are in agreement--and a guarantee that all members have "equal opportunity and capacity for input," regardless of their educational and cultural backgrounds. There are more mundane chores for the facilitators as well: drafting meeting agendas, taking minutes, preparing charts and posters and writing monthly reports detailing the progress of the task force.
Couldn't the state do all of that itself? No, according to Amy Benjamin, who coordinates the program for the health department. AIDS prevention is a highly charged topic, she says, and the group's work will naturally include discussions of controversial measures like needle-exchange programs for drug addicts, promotional campaigns encouraging the use of condoms, and sex education in schools. Because it has a point of view on many of the issues, Benjamin says, the health department could never moderate the meetings in an objective way.
"We felt it was absolutely essential to have neutral and professional facilitators," Benjamin says. "We're bringing together people who have very different agendas. And this is a life-or-death issue for people, so it's very loaded." The NCL's Norris agrees. If the health department were running the show, he says, "others might not feel like they had a voice at the table. You can't wear two hats at once. You can't have an opinion and run a meeting at the same time."
Before joining the NCL four years ago, Norris worked as a regional manager for a New York-based pilot-training company. But most facilitators, he says, come out of government or academia. Maggie Sperling, for instance, worked in the Denver planning department under former mayor Federico Pena. Michael Hughes was a planner for Douglas County and the City of Aurora before moving to CDR. Another local facilitation expert, Ken Torp, was once chief of staff for former Colorado governor Dick Lamm and now heads the Center for Public-Private Sector Cooperation at the University of Colorado-Denver.
Torp is probably Denver's best-known facilitator, but not because of his work in helping people resolve their differences. Instead, Torp made headlines as the leader of a pack of cross-country skiers who got lost in a blizzard near Aspen in February 1993. All of the group's members eventually were rescued or found their way back to civilization, but as Hollywood movie producers began vying for rights to the saga, the skiers publicly turned on each other. Torp, who couldn't be reached for comment, was blasted for his leadership skills, primarily because he and another man allegedly left a group of weaker skiers behind and hiked out to safety.
But the embarrassing episode didn't appear to do much damage to UCD's reputation for problem-solving. Shortly after the skiing incident, Mayor Wellington Webb hired Torp's center to coordinate meetings of his "Safe City Summit," convened in the wake of last year's violence-plagued summer.
Webb asked more than 100 people to participate in the summit, including police officers, business leaders, politicians, neighborhood activists, ministers, social workers and members of street gangs. The task force, which met regularly from October 1993 through April 1994, was charged with coming up with a list of things the city could do to combat youth crime.
A team of consultants from the center staffed meetings of the task force as well as its various committees, each of which tackled thorny issues like education, family, law enforcement and economic policy. At the end of the process, the task force published its findings in a 44-page booklet. Some of its recommendations were specific and concrete: the creation of an "incubator" for youth-run businesses; re-establishing an anti-graffiti program; using city rec centers as holding pens for curfew violators. Others were vague. The group found, for instance, that "adequate health care for families is essential" and that people should be encouraged to "get involved and not stand around and watch people come to harm."
Beth McCann, the city's Safe City coordinator, says there was no way the city could have run the meetings on its own. McCann's job had not yet been created, she notes, and no in-house staff professionals were available for the project. "They were absolutely critical," McCann says of the UCD facilitators. "It wouldn't have gotten done" without them.
But the center's services didn't come cheap. Its total charges to the city climbed to well over $50,000. Records show the university billed Denver taxpayers $1,000 a day for each facilitator assigned to the job. And it sometimes dispatched more than one facilitator to meetings. No less than six were on hand to run a half-day conference at Gove Community School on April 15, bringing the center's bill to $3,000 for its work on that meeting alone.
Lisa Carlson, one of the UCD consultants assigned to the youth-violence task force, calls the effort a "wonderful success." Despite its high cost, Carlson says, hiring facilitators often makes sense because it assures citizens that their concerns are being taken seriously. The public has a "psychological need" to "feel good about the process," Carlson says.
Carlson acknowledges that "all facilitators aren't good in all situations." It pays to bring them in, she says, only in "highly conflictual" disputes; government should be able to handle smaller matters on its own. Webb's Safe City Initiative qualified for use of professional mediators, Carlson says, because "the topic was really volatile."
The use of facilitators is no longer confined to hot-button issues like crime and AIDS. Public agencies in Colorado are now retaining community-relations consultants on a regular basis, driving up the costs of even routine projects.
The Denver Department of Public Works, for instance, now requires contractors to perform facilitation during all major road construction. Under the so-called partnering program, consultants work with neighborhoods to minimize disruption for residents and business owners. "It has been a tremendous success," says spokeswoman Amy Lingg.
Over the last several months, city councilwoman Ramona Martinez has spent about $3,000 from the city budget to have facilitator Joe Gonzales hold meetings between the heads of youth service agencies in an effort to get a handle on the programs offered in her district. Martinez says she got sick of waiting for the Webb administration to perform the assessment, so she went ahead and hired Gonzales herself. "It was very inexpensive," Martinez says. In a work plan filed with the city, Gonzales urged the development of "interorganizational strategies to maximize scarce dollars." He charges $500 a day for his services.
Recently the city council directed the Webb administration to hire Boulder consultant Todd Bryan to moderate meetings between the city and neighborhood groups about the future site of the Salvation Army homeless shelter, which is supposed to move out of its current home at 24th and Blake streets. Bryan's tab: $4,500. Downtown activist Larry Levi supports the decision. "Anything that can further dialogue between the city and the neighborhoods is great," Levi says.
But some critics inside the city planning department say facilitators are often unnecessary. The department, they say, is loaded with people who are capable of running a civilized meeting. Not only are facilitators a waste of money, they say, they often insulate city staff members from the very people they're supposed to be serving. "By delegating to somebody else, then the professional staff loses touch with that relationship to the community," says one city planner, who asks not to be identified. "It's absolutely our job," says another planner. "We're supposed to be able to do all that."
Planning director Jennifer Moulton agrees that facilitators are overused and that communicating with neighborhoods is "clearly a responsibility" of her office.
"It should be the rare occasion that we feel we need to bring in someone from the outside," says Moulton. But, she says, "pervasive distrust" of government makes the use of consultants hard to avoid. "We're a more complex society than we were before," she says. "We're much grumpier."
Some of those grumpy people apparently work in Moulton's own department. After she arrived at planning in 1992, Moulton paid a pair of facilitators about $15,000 to conduct a lengthy series of staff retreats. This summer, after rank-and-file planners asked for a meeting without management present, Moulton complied and paid Boulder's CDR Associates $2,000 to preside over the gripe session.
The planning department isn't the only city agency that has forked over money to help employees communicate with each other. The Department of General Services also paid Denver facilitator June Twinam $750 to run an all-day retreat for its staff members on May 23, records show.
And the presence of facilitators doesn't always dispel the notion of bias in decision-making. The city, for instance, spent about $18,000 to have Denver consultant Gail Hermsen organize neighborhood meetings on a proposed "heliport" in the Central Platte Valley--and still got accused of rigging the process.
The idea for the heliport, a glorified landing pad for privately owned helicopters, first surfaced eight years ago, when the Denver Regional Council of Governments recommended that one be built somewhere in the downtown area. In 1992 the city began studying the idea in detail and hired Randal Wiedemann, a Kentucky-based aviation consultant, to find an appropriate spot for the facility.
Using $75,000 from the Federal Aviation Administration and another $54,000 from the city, Wiedemann settled on the old Denver and Rio Grande Western railroad yard across from the Auraria campus. "There will be minimal impacts to surrounding land uses as a result of the development of the heliport," Wiedemann concluded in a study. "No conflicts between noise and existing land uses are foreseen."
Wiedemann hired Hermsen as a subcontractor to set up meetings with residents from nearby Highland and other affected neighborhoods. Though he has run a "fair number" of public meetings himself in the past, Wiedemann says it made sense to have a Denver-based company on board to help "communicate" the study results to the public. "We felt it would be a good idea," Wiedemann says. "We didn't have the local contacts."
There was another reason to bring Hermsen in, Wiedemann says: She helped him meet requirements on the inclusion of woman- and minority-owned businesses on federally funded projects. "The firm we used happened to meet that profile," Wiedemann says.
But hiring Hermsen didn't do any good. Despite Wiedemann's finding that the heliport would cause little disruption, residents complained loudly about the increase in noise they believed the facility would cause in their neighborhoods. In response, Mayor Webb recently grounded the project ("Choppers Get Axed," August 24).
Highland residents say that, despite the presence of a facilitator at heliport meetings, city staffers seemed bent on moving forward with the project regardless of their complaints. "The process was terrible," says Highland resident David Brehm. "They [the city] were arrogant and seemed to be very secretive. Their whole attitude was, `Trust us, this isn't going to hurt you.'" And Shelly Garcia, another resident, says she didn't consider Hermsen's firm to be a neutral party during the talks. "Her function was to sell this to the neighborhood," Garcia says.
Hermsen agrees that Highland neighbors probably perceived her to be an agent of the city on the heliport. In general, though, she says facilitators provide as valuable and valid a service as the attorneys, architects and other outside advisors government agencies retain all the time. "It's equally important," she says. "Why should you hire professional engineers but not professional public-involvement people?"
And despite attacks by critics such as Hackworth, the facilitation craze shows no signs of abating. Recently, in fact, the city brought in facilitators on a project that would appear to be entirely uncontroversial: the design of Rockmont Park, a project planned for the Central Platte Valley.
The Denver parks department is paying Civitas Inc., a landscape architectural firm, $90,000 to design the park on a triangular lot near Interstate 25, says Jill Kotewicz, a senior landscape architect for the city. Of that, about $10,000 is for a facilitation subconsultant, Kotewicz says. The facilitator, Denver's Design Ventures Inc., has staged seven meetings with residents and will be incorporating citizen suggestions into the park blueprint.
"If we can be involved from the beginning, we can try to get the project started on the right foot," says Design Ventures' James Cromar. The neighborhood meetings, he says, have allowed "the people in the community to contribute their knowledge to the experts." Neighbors have made it clear they would prefer basketball hoops and horseshoe pits to tennis courts at the new park. And they've asked the city not to put in a paved loop for cars, fearing that such an amenity would attract "cruisers" and other undesirables, Cromar says.
Having a facilitator on such projects "creates inclusion," Cromar says, and helps the city "get a better product." Maggie Sperling, the facilitator on Denver's recreation needs assessment, agrees. "You're better off spending too much time listening to people than not," she says. "I think it makes for better government."
But Hackworth says he finds it ironic that claims of good government are used to justify the hiring of facilitators--especially considering all the money that facilitators end up costing taxpayers. The real problem, he says, is that government officials, in an age of $3.9 billion airports, don't think twice about spending a few thousand dollars on an unnecessary consultant.
"Sometimes they lose track of zeros and just forget what zeros are," Hackworth says. "It's easy to talk about a billion [dollars] now. Thousands don't even count anymore.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Westword's biggest stories.